Anyone hoping to camp at Crystal Lake Campgrounds will have to contend with the sheer size of the complex. Located in San Gabriel Canyon, a short jaunt north of Highway 39, it is the biggest campground in the San Gabriel Mountains, offering 171 first-come, first served campsites and three cabins available for reservation. As part of the Crystal Lake Recreation Area, it offers uncompromising access to outdoor adventures in the area, including hiking the spectacular nearby peaks of Mount Islip and Smith Mountain, cycling the alpine roads, and fishing in Crystal Lake. Its high capacity also affords amenities local to the campground that simply aren’t found at other campgrounds in the San Gabriels. Crystal Lake Cafe and Trading Post sells hot meals, sandwiches, and camping necessities that might have been left at home, including firewood. An amphitheater sometimes hosts live music events, and there are ruins of an old dance hall to explore. The campground has running water during the summer and an ample supply of restrooms.
However, heavy visitation over the years has taken its toll. Within 90 minutes of Los Angeles, ease of access and the area’s high profile have encouraged a mainstream camping crowd whose footprint is heavier than the regular backcountry adventurer, who is encouraged to seek a wilderness experience elsewhere. While reports from campers at Crystal Lake Campgrounds suggest that neighbors are courteous and the curfew is generally observed, there are some reports to the contrary. This is a risk at any campground, but high traffic and limited ranger enforcement, which are also reported, could increase the possibility of a negative experience. Similarly, Crystal Lake Campground shows signs of abuse, with some areas cluttered with trash and even signs of graffiti.
For those seeking a casual experience in a wilderness campground where amenities are convenient and the adventure opportunities are beautiful, such signs of wear and tear are forgivable. For those who value the impression of wilderness and its tranquility, there may be better campgrounds in the San Gabriels.
Note: Potable water is only available during summer months and may be limited due to seasonal drought conditions. All campsites are on a first-come, first-served bases and fees are discounted with valid California Adventure Pass. Cafe + Trading Post (general store) is open year-round and closed on Tuesdays. Crystal Lake Visitor Center is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For specific questions regarding the recreation area call 626.910.1149 on weekends and 626.335.1251 on weekdays.